European Cakes – a Feast for the Eyes

We are still held by Great British Bake Off fever here in the UK, and this week’s theme was European Cakes. The bakers had to tackle a yeasted cake of their own choosing, Mary Berry’s recipe for a Swedish Prinsesstarta, and then give their own caramelly interpretation of a Hungarian dobos torta.

Mary Berry’s Prinsesstarta (www.bbc.co.uk/food)

I’ll talk more about these cakes another time, but what the show really made clear was how beautiful European cakes are (I could add, ‘or are meant to be’ but given that presentation is not my own forte in baking, I’ll keep schtum). Presentation really matters; many of the signature cakes from Europe have very precise requirements in terms of decoration and colour, and their consumption really calls for a sense of occasion. British, North American and Australasian cakes, by contrast, are a bit more ‘homeyness on a plate’. If we like comfort, the Europeans demand elegance.

A yeasted kugelhopf (www.a-taste-of-france.com)

This is because in many parts of Europe, baking has historically been an art, executed by a professional craftsman; and I use the word ‘man’ deliberately. In Britain, cake-making has always been associated with women, and many of the current cakey idols are women: Mary Berry, Nigella Lawson (or in America, Martha Stewart, and there are many other examples, right down to the fictitious but dependable Aunt Jemima and Sara Lee). Many of the early British cookbooks were written by women (the first ‘American’ cookbook as opposed to one imported from Europe, was by one Amelia Simmons). On the European continent, that was not the case; baking, like cooking – and writing about it – was dominated by men.

A French Croquembouche Wedding Cake – with American styling courtesy of Martha Stewart! (www.marthastewartweddings.com)

Whether this is because European cakes and patisserie are so ornate that they require a professionally trained pastry cook, or whether this is why they became so, is hard to untangle. Whatever the reason, it elevated cake-making in Europe to something of an art, and one which is still practised with some devotion by men – and women – bakers today. And while I have never since my university days been tempted to try making a profiterole, let along a towering cone of them (see the croquembouche), I have to admit that I am a little tempted by the Prinsesstarta…

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